By Jeffrey Hartinger
Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2013 4:24 AM ET
Last summer, I was walking around the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan with my boyfriend at the time and his dog. In his right hand, he held the leash, and in his other, he held my hand.
It was a beautiful summer day; a cool breeze occasionally drifted past us, through us, and it seemed as if carefree people were everywhere in this congested part of the city. It was such a peaceful scene, but suddenly I was anxious and my eyes darted around as I gripped his hand harder. My heart seemed to beat at a rapid pace and my anxiety increased as we made our way to the dog park.
“Motherfucker,” I uttered under my breath. I thought things were getting better.
Holding hands with another man did not embarrass me, nor did I fear for our safety.
My demeanor went from friendly and chatty to stern and rude; I barely responded to my boyfriend when he asked me a question. I was too busy running different scenarios through my head and falling, once again, victim to bizarre obsessions and compulsions that clouded my mind.
I’m 24 years old, I’m gay. and I have obsessive-compulsive disorder.
And no, I’m not just obsessed with dudes. Well, sort of, but I prefer to use the word “slut.”
I’m obsessed with my actions (or lack of actions), no matter how minuscule, that could possibly alter the life of another individual in a negative way. I guess you could say I’m a product of the Oklahoma City Bombing-Columbine-September 11-Virginia Tech generation. You know, Millennials.
As I crossed the street with my boyfriend, I noticed a few shards of glass in the bike lane. A few bikes rode over the debris — probably from a broken bottle — and a couple of people kicked the glass as they tried to cross the street before the light changed. While a majority of people would keep walking, I contemplated grabbing the larger pieces of glass and tossing them in the garbage can on the corner. As I got closer, I noticed a pack of matches that were also on the ground. Double whammy, baby.
What if a little kid picked up the matches and started a fire? I could throw them out too, I thought. I could be a responsible person and prevent something bad from happening. The glass too. It would only take a few minutes to pick up, and while a popped tire may not cause any harm, a wobbly bike or burst of a tire in New York City would most definitely cause some sort of accident. I just had to do something. My OCD and imagination teamed up against me, per usual.
While I’ve picked up glass and matches and garbage in the past, I kept walking. My anxiety continued to surge, and while I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind for hours, it slowly went away. More extreme cases, such as glass in the street or seeing trash on the edge of a subway platform, usually had me obsessing for days or weeks.
This was the day when I realized that I was finally getting a grasp on my obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s also important to note that OCD isn’t always about germs and washing hands and keeping a tidy house or apartment, although obsessive hand-washing and fear of “contamination” is often the face of the disorder. I was picking up trash in Manhattan, for fuck’s sake. I was sort of like a masculine gay dude who zips under the radar because he’s not a stereotype.
Looking back at my development, I was aware that I had OCD before I realized that I had same-sex attractions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my obsessions and ruminations were strong particularly when I felt things were completely out of my control; waiting anxiously as I told family and friends that I was gay, balancing a handful of jobs while trying to make tuition and rent, moving to Los Angeles after graduation with no money, no friends, and no job. I was the first person in history to pack up my car and move to California to follow my dreams, right?
I can trace my obsessive thoughts and actions back to my earliest memories; being 6 years old or so and watching the aftermath of Timothy McVeigh on television.
If I said something enough times or prayed a certain amount of times or told myself a phrase over and over, it just had to come true! Or I could derail negative occurrences from happening. I “prayed” (which ultimately, turned out to be thinly veiled obsessions) that a major act of destruction would not occur in my hometown of Buffalo. A few years later, the Columbine shooting occurred, and alas, no school shooting happened in my small suburb. It was working. It was all making sense.
The brain is beyond interesting. In retrospect, I can see myself as a creative youth with a wild imagination. My budding OCD, along with my early struggles with homosexuality, helped me gain control over things in my personal life that I didn’t quite understand or did not want to address, in addition to helping me rationalize the random and terrible things that happened to innocent people.
But, I know that I’m lucky. The co-pay to see my psychologist is only 20 bucks per visit, I’m able to work out a few days per week, and thankfully, I live in a city where homosexuality is accepted. Of course, New York isn’t a perfect city, as the recent homophobic crimes will show, but I’ve only felt unsafe maybe once or twice since I moved from Los Angeles a year and a half ago.
It breaks my heart to see people struggling with mental illness who do not have health care or access to a psychologist. For me, I’ve chosen to deal with my OCD through therapy, exercise, and healthy eating. I made a promise to myself that I would not medicate. But, that being said, I’ve also been known to have one too many drinks when things seem overwhelming and I can’t deal with my obsessions. Sometimes I blame it on OCD and other times I blame it on the culture of attending college in Buffalo.
Although I’ve seen huge improvements over the past year, it scares me sometimes too. I never want to go back to where I was at my “worst.”
When I leave my apartment, I lock the door behind me and jiggle the handle twice — just to be sure. But moments later, as I walk toward the subway, a thought creeps into my head: Did you really lock the door? Are you sure? You’re running late — maybe you thought that you locked it? I make it about halfway to the subway and then make a decision: Sometimes I turn around and other times I continue on my way. The outcome isn’t always the same, but I can say that it’s better for mental health to leave the obsession unchecked, although my anxiety will be through the roof for hours, if not the whole day. Over time, the anxiety gets less and less, although it never quite goes away.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder also impacts my dating life.
I’ll fixate on one part of the dinner conversation or obsess over a particular topic. It’s a downfall on dates, as I listen to everything my date has to say, but follow up with some random statement about something they barely touched upon. I’ll spot a spilled drink on the restaurant floor and wonder if anyone will slip.
Ah, well. I suppose I’ll meet someone, someday, who won’t need to compete with a piece of glass or a door that may be unlocked. It’s not easy to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I highly doubt it’s easy to be in love with someone who suffers from it.
As I’m a writer and comedian, my quick wit and curious nature prove to be a strong point in my creative pursuits. The connections I make in life and my writing helps me to understand the world better. With my obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s a combination that isn’t necessarily all that bad; I think it’s one of the reasons that drives me to make positive changes in the world, and a major influence of how I see the world as an interconnected map of small gestures and big events. It’s one of the reasons why I am a writer.
I’m 24 years old. I’ll always be gay, and I’ll always have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Things will ebb and flow, but if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that I do have control over my life. And so do you.
I’ve also learned that it’s OK to stop once in a while during my walks in New York City — but only if it’s to smell the roses.
JEFFREY HARTINGER is a writer and lives in New York City. Visit his website or follow him @BuffaloGuyInNYC.